Mar 18, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
There are about 50 of us filing into a large, brightly lit classroom in the Instructional Center. Students, professors, staff. We are all here for one reason: to learn what we can do, as individuals and as members of the Georgia Tech community, to help prevent suicide.
It’s called QPR Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training. The acronym stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer, and Georgia Tech is one of hundreds of institutions that have incorporated the training program into their comprehensive mental health services and outreach.
Created in the mid-1990s by a clinical psychologist, QPR is a unique approach to emergency mental health interventions. It’s based on the same principle as its pseudo-namesake, CPR, in which non-medical experts learn the skills to stabilize people who aren’t breathing — keeping them alive until they can receive proper medical care.
QPR training seeks the same outcome in a different context. In this case, we are learning how to identify a person in crisis, interrupt the crisis, and connect the individual to the mental health resources and services that can help them.
“Becoming a QPR Gatekeeper, learning warning signs for suicide and how to ask someone if they are thinking about suicide, and how to refer for additional support, is one way that we can assist others in times of need,” said Julia Rizzo, staff therapist and suicide prevention coordinator at Georgia Tech.
“Faculty and staff have unique positions in students’ lives, and being well-equipped to discuss mental health and make referrals can save lives,” she added. “Unfortunately, we are aware of how deeply suicide deaths can affect our community. Suicide is preventable, and we can all play a part in enhancing well-being at Georgia Tech.”
During the next two hours, the training is a combination of PowerPoint presentations, fact sheet handouts, role-playing exercises, and group discussions that are both informative and, at times, deeply emotional and frank. Participants are engaged. They share stories of a family member or friend lost to suicide, or a loved one caught in the tangle of depression. It is not an easy conversation.
And that is the ultimate point of QPR training, to overcome the ingrained fear of talking about suicide and, in particular, asking someone if they are considering suicide. It is the first step, and it is crucial to a potentially lifesaving intervention.
“Every one of you can talk to someone who is struggling,” instructor Holly Shikano tells us. She works as the coordinator for staff and community development in Residence Life, which is part of Tech’s Department of Housing, and this is her third year leading QPR training.
She and the co-instructor for this session, Kathryn Folk, talk to us about identifying direct and indirect verbal cues, and behavioral and situational cues in people who may be in crisis. They also provide tips for asking “the suicide question.” We practice in small groups.
“Life is precious,” says Folk, a 1999 Tech industrial engineering graduate who serves as campus chaplain for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. This is her first time leading a QPR training. “I see so much value in being able to ask these questions and save a life.”
Then follows a group conversation about ways of helping in the moment of intervention. Whether it be through referral to a service provider or offering direct help (for example, walking someone to the Counseling Center or making a phone call to a hotline or elsewhere on their behalf), we learn the importance of persistence, empathy, and positivity — we learn phrases like, “I want you to live. I’m on your side. We will get through this.”
Next, we do another role-playing exercise where we practice what we have talked about. Collectively, we discuss the approaches each group took and analyze what we might have done differently.
Finally, we learn about resources on campus and in the larger Atlanta community, as well as national hotlines, for those in crisis. It is, after all, the third component of QPR — refer — that makes gatekeeping work. In this step, you become the conduit to lifesaving help.
“You are connecting people to resources that they might not know about or choose to seek out on their own,” Shikano reminds us.
QPR training is relevant for staff members who don’t work in close proximity to students, too, because everyone should be equipped to intervene in a crisis. To date, more than 2,600 members of the Georgia Tech community have completed the training.
“We would love for as many people as possible at Tech to become QPR Gatekeeper-trained,” Rizzo said. “Information is powerful, and QPR is a critical piece of the Tech Ends Suicide Together initiative.”
It is also one of many campus efforts we can join to strengthen our community and the bonds we share.
There are three QPR training sessions remaining this semester:
- March 29: 10 a.m. to noon
- April 4: Noon to 2 p.m.
- April 18: 3 to 5 p.m.